What is Vocation?

Reflections by Roger Ebertz (Department Chair and Professor of Philosophy & Religion at the University of Dubuque), August 17, 2015

Vocation is one’s response to a call from beyond oneself to use one’s strengths and gifts to make the world a better place through service, creativity, and leadership.

A call from beyond oneself.

The concept of vocation rests on the belief that life is about more than me. To speak of “vocation” or “calling” is to suggest that my life is a response to something beyond myself. Christians believe this “something beyond myself” is God. But even people outside of this tradition often sense a call to serve others, to create beauty, and to do good in the world. A call may be experienced in many ways, including the following:

  • A sense that God is leading me to a particular task, relationship, or mission.
  • A deep desire to get involved when I am confronted with the needs of others.
  • A sense that a particular task or kind of work is what I am supposed to be doing with my life at this particular time. 
  • Personal fulfilment that I experience as I am involved in a particular task or work.
  • The affirmation of others who recognize the work I am doing and the contributions I am making to the world.

The factors that shape one’s call.

“Vocation” is based on the idea that each individual person has unique strengths and gifts with which they can make a positive contribution to the good of the earth community. Each of us has interests and passions that can propel us in directions of service and creativity. By living my life as a response to a call, I find meaning in my work and give purpose to my life. A clear sense of one’s vocation or calling, then, will involve the following:

  • Coming to a realistic understanding of my strengths as a person, my natural abilities, and my spiritual gifts, developed through personal reflection, conversations with friends and family, exploration with teachers, mentors, career counsellors, and others, and assessment of my strengths and personality. 
  • Discovery of work that uses my gifts and strengths to serve others and/or contribute good things that enable human life to flourish. 
  • Experiencing fulfillment in following the call. My vocation is not just to do what I want to do in a shallow sense. Sometimes, following my call may involve giving up a lot, even sacrificing one’s life. But finding and following my true call is also what makes one’s life meaningful and deeply fulfilling.
  • Finding meaning in the work I am doing right now. We are called to be students, professors, leaders, and so forth, right here and now. 
  • Recognizing that vocation is not static or limited to my job. Vocation also includes my relationships, causes, and work as a volunteer outside of my place of employment. We are called to be good parents, good siblings, good spouses, good friends. 
  • Experiencing the unfolding of my calling as I live my life. Perhaps the deepest sense of fulfilment may well be found as one reviews one’s life and sees the way in which the various strands of one’s life have contributed to the fulfillment of a broad lifetime vocation. 

The direction of the call.

When we talk about vocation, our focus is not on finding one’s dream job. If I think in terms of vocation, I will not just look for a job I like or a career that will make me rich, although enjoyable jobs and riches sometimes come to those who follow a call. Vocation is rooted in character and commitment to the value of others. It is about growing into a person who focuses their life beyond themselves. It is about living life in such a way that I make a positive contribution to the world. There are many ways to make such a contribution, including:

  • Serving those we are in relationships with. We are called to be parents, siblings, children, spouses, and friends, fulfilling each of these roles with integrity, justice and compassion.
  • Performing tasks that meet the daily needs of others. Custodians, electricians, accountants, airline pilots, administrators, business executives, teachers, nurses, and people in many other professions improve the world by simply providing everyday goods and services.
  • Providing ethical leadership in businesses, government, various organizations, and society.
  • Doing big and small things to bring peace and justice to the world.
  • Working for the health of the environment. 
  • Creating works of beauty through all kinds of artistic expression and expressions of truth through various avenues of scholarship. 

It follows from all of this that to respond to one’s calling is to find meaning in a life of character and purpose. Character involves the virtues of integrity, justice and compassion. Vocation or calling involves hearing and responding to the “voice” which uniquely calls each of us to live purposeful lives that serve the world in all kinds of ways.    

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“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  1 Corinthians 12: 4-7.

“You can call it God or conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.”  Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, p. 86.